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Reflections on the 35th session of the UN Human Rights Council

Last month DefendDefenders travelled to Geneva, together with human rights defenders (HRDs) from Burundi, Eritrea, and Ethiopia to call for action and accountability on some of the world’s gravest human rights crises at the 35th session of the UN Human Rights Council (UN HRC).

Since April 2015, Burundi has plunged into a protracted crisis of such gravity that the UN HRC established a Commission of Inquiry to investigate allegations of human rights violations during its 33rd session – one of only four such Commissions created by the Council. During an oral briefing to update the UN HRC, the Commissioners expressed their shock about the cruel and brutal nature of the violations described to them. They also noted the lack of cooperation by the Government of Burundi which, despite being a UN HRC Member State, refuses to provide access to the Commission.

At a side event on the margins of the session, DefendDefenders provided a forum to Burundian civil society leaders to update the diplomatic community in Geneva on the situation in Burundi, and the continued work by HRDs to monitor events. We also used this opportunity to highlight the challenges faced by HRDs who have been forced into exile, based on the findings of our 2016 “Exiled and in Limbo” report.

Despite the damning findings of the Commission of Inquiry on Eritrea, presented to the UN HRC in June 2016, international and regional human rights bodies have yet to take strong action toward establishing an accountability mechanism for alleged crimes against humanity. DefendDefenders co-hosted a side event to explore avenues of accountability such as universal jurisdiction, essentially using domestic courts to prosecute international crimes. Human rights experts discussed lessons learned from cases in Southern Africa, strategies for investigation that can lead to prosecution, and the important role for civil society in this matter.

DefendDefenders called for the renewal of the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on Eritrea. As noted in her report presented during the session, there is no indication that the Eritrean government is willing to improve its human rights record. In this context, the mandate remains instrumental in monitoring the situation on the ground and move toward future accountability. We were encouraged that the UN HRC decided to extend her mandate through a resolution that requested her to provide an update to the UN General Assembly at its 72nd session, called for the establishment of an OHCHR office in Eritrea, and called on States to protect those who flee the repressive regime.

Although the UN HRC reaffirmed through resolution A/HRC/32/L.20 that the same rights that apply offline must also be respected online, the Ugandan and Tanzanian government increasingly infringe on this right, and several outspoken critics have been charged over online publications.

Meanwhile, elections continue to be periods of increased tension in the East and Horn of Africa. A vocal civil society protecting the franchise is still all too often mistaken for political opposition or dissent, and throughout the sub-region HRDs have faced increased harassment and repression around elections often serving as a bellwether for further downward trends. In an Item 4 statement, DefendDefenders called the Council’s attention to the upcoming Kenyan elections, where monitors designated by civil society were barred from accessing polls during the party primaries, and where HRDs are reporting increasing restrictions ahead of the August 2017 vote.

Oral Statements to the Council

Human Rights Council: 35th Session
Item 4: General Debate – Human rights situations that require the Council’s attention

16 June 2017

Oral Intervention
East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project

Delivered by Mr. Hassan Shire

Thank you Mr. President.

I thank you for the opportunity to raise some serious concerns we have regarding elections in the East and Horn of Africa.  Human rights defenders in the sub-region often act as bellwethers for crises to come. When they are targeted, when their work is restricted through repressive legislation, when they are forced to leave everything behind, we need to realise that a downward trend that is likely to follow.

In Burundi or in Ethiopia, for example, elections have come at a cost for civil society and the media looking to actively engage with this democratic process.

That is why today I wish to express my specific concern for August 2017 elections in Kenya. While Kenya’s civil society remains among the strongest in the sub-region, HRDs today are limited from engaging fully and critically with the electoral process. According to the Kenyan Coalition for Human Rights Defenders, in 9 different counties, monitors designated by civil society either experienced hostility or were barred from accessing polling stations during the party primaries in April 2017.

Mr. President, we call on members of the Council to fulfil their democratic commitments by organising elections, but also ensuring that all, including political parties, civil society, and media, are able to engage freely and safely in the process.

Human Rights Council: 35th session
Item 4: Interactive Dialogue with the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi

15 June 2017

Oral Intervention
East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project

Delivered by Mr. Alexandre Niyungeko

Version française ci-dessous

Thank you, Mr. President.

DefendDefenders and the Burundian Union of Journalists thank the experts of the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi for their oral update. As an exiled Burundian trying to continue his activism, I appreciate the difficult work done by the experts to investigate the human rights violations that affect my people.

Mr. President, grave human rights violations, extra judicial killings, enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrests, torture and other inhuman treatments continue to be perpetrated in Burundi, my country. We are also very concerned about the many cases of violence against women and girls. Hate speech calling for rape by the Imbonerakure is additional proof of the campaign of terror that is targeting women and girls and hate speech promoted by pro-government media.

A climate of fear and suspicion has taken over Burundi and chases human rights defenders into exile. Independent journalism has become so risky that those who remain risk their lives on a daily basis.

At the same time, recent disease epidemics amplify this situation. With the political crisis, insecurity and a deteriorating economic situation, access to basic services, such as education and health, is in serious jeopardy in Burundi.
Mr. President, while the Burundian people are living in constant fear, the Government of Burundi refuses any dialogue and cooperation, including with the Commission of Inquiry. This behaviour is unacceptable on the part of a member state of the Human Rights Council. Mr. President, we call on all member states of this Council to remind Burundi of its obligations and to establish responsibility for the crimes committed.


Merci Monsieur le Président.

DefendDefenders et l’Union Burundaise des Journalistes remercient les experts de la Commission d’enquête pour leur rapport oral. En tant que Burundais exilé qui cherche à continuer son travail, j’apprécie le travail difficile accompli par les experts pour documenter les violations des droits humains qui touchent mon peuple.

Monsieur le Président, de graves violations des droits humains – exécutions extrajudiaires, disparitions forcées, torture et autres mauvais traitements, arrestations arbitraires – continuent d’être perpétrées dans mon pays. Nous sommes également très inquiets des nombreux cas de violence faites aux femmes et aux filles. Le chant de haine appelant aux viols par la milice Imbonerakure n’est qu’une preuve supplémentaire de la campagne de terreur qui vise les femmes et les filles, et nous sommes particulièrement préoccupés par le discours de la haine véhiculé par les médias pro-gouvernement.

Un climat de peur et de suspicion a envahi le Burundi qui a poursuit les défenseurs des droits humains jusqu’en exile, et le journalisme  indépendant est devenu tellement risqué que ceux qui restent au pays risquent leur vie au quotidien.

En même temps, de récentes épidémies exacerbent cette situation. Avec la crise politique, l’insécurité et la dégradation de la situation économique, l’accès aux services essentiels, comme l’éducation et la santé, est entravé au Burundi.

Monsieur le Président, pendant que le peuple burundais vit dans la peur constante, le gouvernement du Burundi refuse tout dialogue et toute coopération, y compris avec la Commission d’enquête. Ce comportement est inacceptable venant de la part d’un état membre du Conseil des Droits de l’Homme. Monsieur le Président, nous appelons tous les états membres de ce Conseil à rappeler au Burundi ses obligations et à établir la responsabilité des crimes commis.

Human Rights Council: 35th Session
Item 4: Interactive Dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on Eritrea

14 June 2017

Oral Intervention
East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project

Delivered by Ms. Helen Kidane

Mr. President,

On behalf of the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project, I would like to thank the Special Rapporteur for her report, in particular with regard to her recommendations to address past and ongoing human rights violations in Eritrea.

One year ago, a Commission of Inquiry presented its finding to the 32nd session of this Council, concluding that there are reasonable grounds to believe that crimes against humanity – the most egregious violations of international law – have been, and continue to be committed under the current regime.

Although we regret the absence of strong action toward establishing accountability mechanisms by international and regional human rights body, the Special Rapporteur continues to fulfil an invaluable role in shining a light on the ongoing human rights violations in Eritrea. The mandate has been instrumental in monitoring the dire situation in the country and provides a crucial platform to help amplify the voices of victims. It is also essential in ensuring future accountability for alleged crimes against humanity.

As the Special Rapporteur’s report reflects, there has been no indication that the Eritrean government is willing to take steps to improve its human rights record, ensure justice and redress for victims, or provide clarity on the situation of detained human rights defenders and journalists, many of whom have been held incommunicado for over a decade.

Mr. President, we echo the Special Rapporteur’s observation that “business as usual cannot be an option” while Eritreans continue to suffer, and strongly urge that the mandate be renewed.

I thank you.

Human Rights Council: 35th Session
Item 3: Interactive Dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression

13 June 2017

Oral Intervention
East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project
Delivered by Ms. Clementine de Montjoye

Thank you Mr. President,

On behalf of the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project, I would like to commend the efforts of the Special Rapporteur, particularly his focus on alarming trends with regards to online free speech. Online platforms have empowered users to express themselves freely to a wider audience, but also made them vulnerable to surveillance and new threats such as Internet or social media shutdowns. This digital space, with all its complexities, should be analysed as a key tool for the promotion of free speech and a valuable asset for human rights defenders (HRDs) across the world.

Tanzania’s 2015 Cyber Crimes Act enables the prosecution of citizens for statements made online and affords police forces excessive powers to conduct surveillance, as well as search and seizure operations without judicial oversight. These restrictions on free access to information were further entrenched by 2016’s Media Services Act, which severely regulates and allows for the punishment of any media operating within the country, online or otherwise.

In Uganda, free expression online is not only restricted through media or online communications legislation, such as the Computer Misuse Act which has recently been used to prosecute social media activist Stella Nyanzi and WhatsApp users, but also through legislation restricting expression on specific topics. The Anti-Homosexuality Act, which punishes anyone found publishing or disseminating material promoting same-sex relations, has severely restricted HRDs’ ability to organise and engage in any meaningful debates surrounding this critical issue.

Mr. President, we echo the Special Rapporteur’s recommendations that governments review and revise national laws and practices in accordance with principles of proportionality and necessity in relation to online communications, as well as support the expression of pluralistic and independent media voices across the sub-region.

Thank you.

Briefing papers and press releases

To Permanent Representatives of
Members and Observer States of the
UN Human Rights Council

Geneva, 25 May 2017

RE: Addressing the pervasive human rights crisis in Ethiopia

Your Excellency,

The undersigned civil society organisations write to draw your attention to persistent and grave violations of human rights in Ethiopia and the pressing need to support the establishment of an independent, impartial and international investigation into atrocities committed by security forces to suppress peaceful protests and independent dissent.

As the UN Human Rights Council (UN HRC) prepares to convene for its 35thsession from 6 – 23 June 2017, we urge your delegation to prioritise and address through joint statements the ongoing human rights crisis in Ethiopia.

In the wake of unprecedented, mass protests that erupted in November 2015 in Oromia, Amhara, and the Southern Nations Nationalities and Peoples (SNNPR) regional states, Ethiopian authorities routinely responded to legitimate and largely peaceful expressions of dissent with excessive and unnecessary force. As a result, over 800 protesters have been killed, thousands of political activists, human rights defenders, journalists and protesters have been arrested, and in October 2016, the Ethiopian Government declared a six-month nationwide State of Emergency, that was extended for an additional four months on 30 March 2017 after some restrictions were lifted.

The State of Emergency directives give sweeping powers to a Command Post, which has been appointed by the House of People’s Representatives to enforce the decree, including the suspension of fundamental and non-derogable rights protected by the Ethiopian Constitution, the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and other international human rights treaties to which Ethiopia is party. More information on the human rights violations occurring under the current State of Emergency is included in the Annex at the end of this letter.

Lack of independent investigations

Few effective avenues to pursue accountability for abuses exist in Ethiopia, given the lack of independence of the judiciary – the ruling EPRDF coalition and allied parties control all 547 seats in Parliament.

Ethiopia’s National Human Rights Commission, which has a mandate to investigate rights violations, concluded in its June 2016 oral report to Parliament that the lethal force used by security forces in Oromia was proportionate to the risk they faced from the protesters. The written Amharic version of the report was only recently made public, and there are long-standing concerns about the impartiality and research methodology of the Commission. On 18 April 2017, the Commission submitted its second oral report to Parliament on the protests, which found that 669 people were killed, including 63 members of the security forces, and concluded that security forces had taken “proportionate measures in most areas.” Both reports are in stark contrast with the findings of other national and international organisations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. The Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions has rated the Commission as B, meaning the latter has failed to meet fully the Paris Principles.

Refusal to cooperate with regional and international mechanisms

In response to the recent crackdown, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, has called for “access for independent observers to the country to assess the human rights situation”, and recently renewed his call for access to the country during a visit to the capital, Addis Ababa. Ethiopia’s government, however, has rejected the call, citing its own investigation conducted by its Commission. UN Special Procedures have also made similar calls.

In November 2016, the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights adopted a resolution calling for an international, independent, and impartial investigation into allegations of the use of excessive and unnecessary lethal force by security forces to disperse and suppress peaceful protests. Recent European parliament and US Congressional resolutions have also called for independent investigations. The Ethiopian embassy in Belgium dismissed the European Parliament’s resolution citing its own Commission’s investigations into the protests.

As a member of the UN HRC, Ethiopia has an obligation to “uphold the highest standards” of human rights, and “fully cooperate” with the Council and its mechanisms (GA Resolution 60/251, OP 9), yet there are outstanding requests for access from Special Procedures, including from the special rapporteurs on torture, freedom of opinion and expression, and peaceful assembly, among others.


During the upcoming 35th session of the UN HRC, we urge your delegation to make joint and individual statements reinforcing and building upon the expressions of concern by the High Commissioner, UN Special Procedures, and others.

Specifically, the undersigned organisations request your delegation to publicly urge Ethiopia to:

    1. urgently allow access to an international, thorough, independent, impartial and transparent investigation into all of the deaths resulting from alleged excessive use of force by the security forces, and other violations of human rights in the context of the protests;
    2. respond favourably to country visit requests by UN Special Procedures,
    3. immediately and unconditionally release journalists, human rights defenders, political opposition leaders and members as well as protesters arbitrarily detained during and in the aftermath of the protests;
    4. ensure that those responsible for human rights violations are prosecuted in proceedings which comply with international law and standards on fair trials; and
    5. fully comply with its international legal obligations and commitments including under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and its own Constitution.

With assurances of our highest consideration,


  • Association for Human Rights in Ethiopia
  • CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation
  • Civil Rights Defenders
  • DefendDefenders (East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project)
  • Ethiopia Human Rights Project
  • Freedom House
  • Front Line Defenders
  • Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect
  • Human Rights Watch
  • International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH)
  • International Service for Human Rights
  • Reporters Without Borders
  • World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT)


A repressive legal framework

The legal framework in Ethiopia restricts the enjoyment of civil and political rights, and therefore the activity of the political opposition, civil society, and independent media in the country.

The Charities and Societies Proclamation (2009) caps foreign funding at 10% for non-governmental organisations working on human rights, good governance, justice, rule of law and conflict resolution. The law has decimated civil society and human rights activism in the country. Currently, a handful of independent human rights organisations continue to operate, but with great difficulty.

The Anti-Terrorism Proclamation (2009) has been used repeatedly to silence critical voices. Political opposition party leaders and members, people involved in public protests, religious freedom advocates and journalists have been arrested and charged under this law. Both laws are a matter of great concern and have been repeatedly raised in international forums, including at Ethiopia’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in 2014.

Overarching restrictions under the State of Emergency

The State of Emergency directives restrict the organisation of political campaigns, demonstrations, and any communication that may cause “public disturbance.” It also bans communications with foreign governments and NGOs that may undermine ‘national sovereignty, constitutional order and security’, and the right to disseminate information through traditional and social media. Additionally, the Command Post was given sweeping powers to arbitrarily arrest and detain individuals without due process.

A few weeks before the State of Emergency was extended by an additional four months, the government announced it was lifting some of these restrictions, including the Command Post’s power to arbitrarily arrest people or conduct property searches without warrants, curfews, and certain restrictions regarding sharing of information online and offline.

Despite some improvements in internet access since mobile data services were restored throughout parts of the country on 2 December 2016, social media platforms such as Whatsapp, Facebook and Twitter remain inaccessible except through VPNs.

Mass arrests

Since the declaration of the State of Emergency, the Command Post announced that tens of thousands have been arbitrarily arrested and transported to different detention centers throughout the country. Most of the detainees were held for a period of around three months in Awash, Alage, Bir Sheleko, and Tolay police and military camps. In November 2016, authorities announced the release of 11,607 people who were detained under the State of Emergency following “rehabilitation training programs.” One month later, authorities announced they were releasing an additional 9,800 detainees. Former detainees have reported being subjected to torture, harsh prison conditions, and other forms of ill treatment. In late March 2017, the Command Post announced through state media that 4,996 of the 26,130 people detained for allegedly taking part in protests would be brought to court.

Continued targeting of the political opposition, the media and civil society

According to the Association for Human Rights in Ethiopia, three of Ethiopia’s main opposition parties, the Unity for Democracy and Justice Party (UDJ), Blue Party, and All Ethiopian Unity Party (AEUP) have claimed that a large number of their members were targeted by Command Post and arbitrarily arrested.

On 30 October 2016, Dr. Merera Gudina, a professor and prominent opposition leader of the Oromo Federalist Congress was arrested after his return from Brussels where he provided testimony on the current political crisis to some members of the European Parliament and described human rights violations being committed in Ethiopia. On 3 March 2017, prosecutors formally charged Dr. Merera with a bid to “dismantle or disrupt social, economic and political activity for political, religious and ideological aim […] under the guise of political party leadership”. Dr. Merera was also accused of meeting with an organisation designated as a terrorist group contravening restrictions contained in the State of Emergency directives.

Members of the Wolqait Identity Committee, including Colonel Demeqe Zewude, have also faced allegedly politically motivated criminal charges under the 2009 Anti-Terrorism Proclamation. Their attempted arrest sparked protests in the Amhara capital of Gondar in August 2016.

On 18 November 2016, journalists Elias Gebru and Ananiya Sori were arrested by security forces, according to the Association for Human Rights in Ethiopia. Both were reportedly arrested in relation to their criticism of government policies and actions. Ananiya was released on 13 March 2017. At the time of writing, Elias is still being held in prison without due process of law.

On 6 April 2017, Ethiopia’s Supreme Court ruled that two bloggers from the Zone 9 collective previously acquitted of terrorism charge should be tried instead on charges of inciting violence through their writing. If convicted of the charge, Atnaf Berhane and Natnael Feleke would face a maximum prison sentence of 10 years. The court also upheld the lower court’s acquittal of two other Zone 9 bloggers, Soleyana S Gebremichael and Abel Wabella.

To Permanent Representatives of
Members and Observer States of the
UN Human Rights Council

Geneva, 5 June 2017

RE: Renewing the mandate of the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea

Your Excellencies,

We, the undersigned civil society organisations, write to urge your delegation to co-sponsor a resolution renewing the mandate of the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea at the forthcoming 35th Session of the UN Human Rights Council. In view of the ongoing crimes under international law, including torture, enslavement and enforced disappearances, and violations of fundamental freedoms committed in Eritrea, the Special Rapporteur’s mandate remains an indispensable mechanism to advance the protection and promotion of human rights in Eritrea.

The mandate of the Special Rapporteur was established at the 20th UN Human Rights Council Session in 2012 to monitor the human rights situation in Eritrea. From June 2014-June 2016, the mandate was also represented on the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea (CoI). The mandate of the Special Rapporteur was extended in July 2016 to follow-up on the recommendations of the CoI. It has been instrumental in monitoring the dire situation on the ground, highlighting on-going violations and the failure to implement the recommendations of the CoI and in providing a crucial platform to help amplify the voices and concerns of victims.

The findings of the CoI and UN Special Rapporteur reveal that the Eritrean authorities have continued to impose a broad range of unwarranted restrictions on fundamental human rights, precipitating mass migration, including of unaccompanied children [1]. Despite commitments by the State to reduce national service to 18 months, indefinite national service and forced labor persist throughout the country. Persons who attempt to avoid military conscription, take refuge abroad, practice an unsanctioned religion, or who criticise government officials continue to be arrested and imprisoned for lengthy periods [2].

The absence of an independent judiciary means that victims of these human rights violations have no recourse to justice at home. As a result, in Eritrea impunity persists and those who have been subjected to enforced disappearances remain unaccounted for.

In light of these concerns, we respectfully request your delegation to co-sponsor a resolution during the 35th UN HRC session that renews the mandate of the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea, provides the mandate holder with all necessary support, and urges the Government of Eritrea to cooperate with the mandate holder including allowing unencumbered access to the country.


  1. Africa Monitors
  2. Amnesty International
  3. ARTICLE 19
  4. Citizens for Democratic Rights in Eritrea
  6. Connection e.V
  7. DefendDefenders (East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project)
  8. Eritrean Diaspora in East Africa
  9. Eritrean Lowland League
  10. Eritrean Law Society
  11. Eritrea Focus
  12. Eritrean Movement for Democracy and Human Rights
  13. Eritreans for Human and Democratic Rights – UK
  14. FIDH (International Federation for Human Rights)
  15. Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect
  16. Human Rights Concern – Eritrea
  17. Human Rights Watch
  18. Information Forum For Eritrea
  19. International Fellowship of Reconciliation
  20. International Service for Human Rights
  21. Network of Eritrean Women
  22. PEN Eritrea
  23. People for Peace in Africa
  24. Release Eritrea
  25. Reporters Without Borders
  26. Stop Slavery in Eritrea Campaign
  27. War Resisters International

[1] Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Eritrea at the 31th session of the Human Rights Council Agenda item 4 14 March 2016, Geneva
[2] Ibid


A/HRC/35/L.13/Rev.1 renews the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on Eritrea for one year and requests that she provides an update to the UN General Assembly at its 72nd session. The resolution also calls for the establishment of an OHCHR Office in the Eritrea, and urges States to redouble their efforts to protect refugees that flee the country.

A/HRC/35/L.25 extends the mandate of the Special Rapporteur for three years and demands that States take action to abolish the practice of extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions is all its forms.

A/HRC/35/L.34 calls on States to uphold their obligations in the context of countering terrorism and expresses concern of the growing number of measures that undermine the human rights of those persons suspected or accused of terrorism.


Human Rights Defender of the month: Apollo Mukasa

Apollo Mukasa’s journey into activism is deeply rooted in his commitment to advocate for the rights of persons with disabilities (PWDs). As the Executive Director of Uganda National Action on Physical Disability (UNAPD), Apollo is a driving force behind initiatives aimed at combating discrimination among PWDs. UNAPD was established in 1998 as a platform for voicing concerns of persons with physical disabilities to realise a barrier free environment where they can enjoy their rights to the fullest.